Anime Review #81: Sword Art Online II, Part 2

NOTE TO READERS: Just as I had finished the first draft of my seventeenth East Meets West article, unfortunately I had to delay it once again to next week; the reason being that this particular Friday commemorates Our Lady of Fatima, who exactly 105 years ago appeared to three Portuguese children and encouraged them to pray for peace, the atonement of sins and the conversion of souls, and promoted in particular the Rosary, one of the most powerful tools of Christian devotion and spirituality. With that being said, I decided to place on this day a review of the final ten episodes of Sword Art Online II, which contains one of the most Catholic – and implicitly Marian – anime arcs I’ve ever seen out there.

Last week, I reviewed Sword Art Online II‘s Phantom Bullet arc, which chronicled Kirito and Sinon’s gun-slinging adventures in GGO. For all means and intents, it was a fair arc: no incredulously overpowered hack moves, no plot holes, significant character development and a game which was fairly consistent in its functionality. For the first time, Sword Art Online felt like it was taking a new direction to improve itself after all the backlash it got the first time it rolled around. Honestly, I was slightly impressed by its performance – but then came the Mother’s Rosario arc which would forever change my perception of this franchise as a whole. You might have heard that name thrown around here before – and for good reason. Prior to today, I’ve written posts describing it as a narrative that was not only Catholic in aesthetics, but in its lessons as well. I hope that through this post you’ll see why I found this to my liking; but before that, I am obliged to wade through the first part of this series’ conclusion, which is the Calibur arc.

SWORD ART ONLINE II – CALIBUR AND MOTHER’S ROSARIO ARCS

The final half of SAO II consists of two arcs, one short and the other long. The first, the Calibur arc, sees our heroes return to Alfheim to engage in another quest, covered in episodes 15-17; it is an adaptation of the seventh volume of the light novel. The second is the aforementioned (and hopefully not overrated) Mother’s Rosario arc, which covers the eighth volume and spans the final seven episodes of the series. As with the previous arc, old and new voice actors joined forces, the most notable of them being award-winning voice actress Aoi Yuki (the voice of Madoka Kaname from Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Tanya Von Degurechaff from The Saga Of Tanya The Evil) who takes on the role of supporting character Konno Yuuki.

Like Phantom Bullet before it, the series combines both action and occasional moments of drama, while reverting to the medieval-themed man-versus-monster scenario that dominated the first season; however, this time we begin to explore as SAO undergoes another transformation in genre, and become a little more spiritual in its delivery – a move which has garnered it to be seen in a more positive light from both casual and professional reviewers, such as those at Anime News Network and Kotaku.

PLOT

Months after Sinon was freed from her trauma thanks to Kirito, a new quest comes for them in Alfheim where they have to retrieve the legendary sword Calibur. Together Kirito, Asuna, Sinon, Lizbeth, Silica, Klein and their flying jellyfish-elephant mix Tonkii, they venture to the land of Jotunheimr to fulfill the quest, but unfortunately are interrupted by the appearance of an NPC entity known as the Queen of the Lake, who informs them of the true nature of the quest: it is a trap, set by Thrym, the king of the ice giants, who seized control of Jotunheimr, enslaved its inhabitants and turned it into an icy prison / wasteland. As a result, the quest now turns from getting treasure to overthrowing Thrym’s tyrannical rule. They barge into the fortress, fighting multiple beast enemies and rescuing Freyja, one of the fortress’ prisoners who joins their guild. Confronting Thrym, they manage to defeat him and restore peace to the land thanks to Kirito unleashing the power of the legendary hammer Mjollnir, which summons Thor and allows them to vanquish him for good.

Following their victory in Jotunheimr, Asuna and the girls are hanging out in their in-game cabin on the Feast of the Epiphany when Lizbeth brings up mention of an ultimate warrior, known by the name of “Zekken” (Absolute Sword) whose fighting prowess is so high, no one has been able to successfully defeat her in a one-on-one; including Leafa or Kirito. Arriving at the location of the battleground, a large island flanked by a tree located on the game’s 24th floor, she comes face-to-face with Konno Yuuki, who reveals herself as the one with that identity. They duel each other, and despite a spirited bout she loses, but her skills impress the young Yuuki enough for her to be initiated to her guild, the Sleeping Knights – aptly named since, unbeknownst to Asuna, all of them are hospital patients. Yuuki reveals the reason why she was enlisted: to help them defeat one of the bosses on the 27th floor, and get their names enshrined in the game’s hall of fame, which she accepts to.

At the same time, Asuna’s IRL life begins to take a rocky turn, as her mother plans, against her wishes,not only limit her gaming involvement but to betroth her to a man she does not like and pull her out of her current school (specially designed for victims of the Aincrad incident, along with Kirito and company) to a more prestigious one, fearing that the current environment will cause her to deter her professional prospects – to which an enraged Asuna criticizes her overbearing personality. Nevertheless the following day she meets with Yuuki and the Sleeping Knights to successfully defeat the floor’s boss, but after Asuna calls Yuuki like her “younger sister”, the latter breaks down crying and log out, apparently too traumatized to continue. It is here that she discovers that Konno Yuuki, this whole time, was a terminally ill AIDS patient and the initial patient of the Medicuboid system from which she plays the game; and learning that her immediate family is dead, including her own sister, she understands the reason for Yuuki’s disturbance, and vows to give her an experience of life in the real world.

She takes her to visit her school virtually, and later visits her old family home where she reminiscences about her pre-hospital days, while giving Asuna some sound advice on how to deal with her own problems with her mother: to stand her ground, be honest with her mom, and let her feelings be known. This works, as Asuna and her mother are finally able to bond in her video game world and explored the root of her mother’s early reaction, which was her disdain for her rural family life and want to succeed, a trait she wants her daughter to achieve too. After Asuna declares her own determination to excel in her own path, her mother finally acquits her and allows her to remain in the same school. Going to visit Yuuki to tell her how things went, she realizes that she’s in her final hours, and rushes to meet her in the place where they first met. She passes her own sword skill – titled Mother’s Rosario, after her mother’s devotion to Christ – and, surrounded by Kirito, his friends, the Sleeping Knights and many other players who hail her as the greatest player ever, happily reflects on how well she lived her life, and dies peacefully in Asuna’s arms.

Days later, Asuna attends Yuuki’s Requiem Mass, and meets with the IRL users of the Sleeping Knights squad, one of them being Siune (Jun in the game), who notes how much of an inspiration Yuuki was to their lives, and meets with Kirito and Dr. Kurahashi, Yuuki’s former caretaker, who proudly proclaims that the Medicuboid system was approved for use. With that, Asuna is happy that Yuuki’s experience would not go in vain, but rather be used to benefit the lives of many other similarly-suffering patients – thereby cementing a bittersweet end to this series.

WHAT I LIKED

  • I liked how the series returned to its original roots; I mean after all, it is called Sword Art Online for a reason, because of the immense amount of swordplay we’re supposed to be dealing with! Furthermore, they made Alfheim much more expansive with new environments (for example, the Monument of Swordsmen is explicitly based off the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, multiple different dungeons) and refined its gameplay to be more familiar with the superior first half than how it appeared in SAO’s abominable second half. Having this was a good throwback to the arc that kicked off its popularity. If there’s one good thing about the Calibur arc, this is probably part of it.
  • In regards to Mother’s Rosario, I really loved all the underlying aspects of it. The episodes’ vibe was tender, the tough subject matter was handled maturely, but without shying away from balancing bits of action where appropriate. The mood is right up there with that of entire shows like Your Lie In April, Angel Beats, Anohana or Clannad which, if you think about it is quite daunting for an adventure-centered show like SAO to pull off. But it did; and came out on top.
  • Mother’s Rosario also managed to distinguish itself from other SAO arcs because of its treatment of VR technology as a force for good – in the service of healthcare – and not for cruel imprisonment, borderline rape, and bloody murder as it was before. As a result this series wound up becoming much more rewarding, tamer and friendlier, providing a positive change in mood compared to before.
  • Adding to the above, I have to commend the series for its frequent use of Roman Catholic symbolism in a respectful manner. Konno Yuuki’s family is shown as practicing Catholics, her virtues and character are identifiable of someone from that upbringing, and her final attack being a tribute to the decades of the Mother of God’s Rosary left a deep impression on my perception of this particular segment.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

  • Structurally, the Calibur arc was weak, and I’m not saying that just because it was shorter than the other three. The change in plot was abrupt and poorly mixed in, the action was a bit generic as well as its enemies, which felt like first season rehashes, and was very lacking in the sense that the backup characters didn’t offer anything new to enhance it. It was just another basic filler arc with no purpose, rhyme or reason to it. That, as well as its awkward mixing of Nordic and English mythology left a sour taste in my mouth after it ended.
  • One thing I wished Mother’s Rosario could have done was to show more scenes with Yuuki and her sister from the past. Given how seriously she took Asuna’s comment in episode 21, it might have been nice for the series to explain it by visually interluding to how strong their bond was that troubled Yuuki. It would have enhanced the emotional impact more rather than have Dr. Kurahashi explain her family history.

CHARACTERS

The characterization SAO II‘s final set completely threw me aback, and in a good way. As a matter of fact, I was amazed with how pristine and carefully built it was. I’m talking of course, about the bond between Asuna and Konno Yuuki in Mother’s Rosario. After Yuuki finds Asuna as a worthy partner, the two of them embark on a fun-filled quest in Alfheim; laughing, eating, and slicing-and-dicing together. They share some secrets and trust that they’ll have each other’s back and words of support, loving each other in a filial sense. But one thing stands out here in comparison to Kirito and Sinon from Phantom Bullet, and that’s purpose. The first was more like a healing session at a psychiatric ward, but Mother’s Rosario went above and beyond that, instead resembling a reciprocative mentor-student bond like Mr. Miyagi and Daniel LaRusso from The Karate Kid. Yuuki is the teacher and Asuna is the student; she shares her experiences with her new friend, who in turn uses it to change her fate, see her mom’s turmoil in a new light, and in turn Asuna is dedicated to give Yuuki the best life she can have IRL, culminating in fulfilling her last wishes and keeping her company when her condition worsens.

It’s not just that though. What made this arc special was Konno Yuuki herself. At a young age, she’s already gone through a lot of ordeals – her immediate family is dead, and she herself is not in a good condition; each day might be her last. She knows this, but she doesn’t pull off a Crona-style woe-fest; she fights on, living with a smile on her face, and wants to spread her joy to everyone she meets, like Asuna or the Sleeping Knights guild. She’s small, but has a big heart and is wise beyond her years. I like to see her as the archetype of the Catholic attitude for suffering: to bear them patiently, to anticipate and cherish them while making them as a means of strengthening ourselves spiritually. As a bodybuilder uses the pain that comes from workouts as motivation to know that they’re growing stronger, so too does Yuuki use her ailments for a better purpose. She isn’t just a character with a sob story for sympathy’s sake. She isn’t a rival opponent whom Asuna must try to one-up. And she most definitely is not a Mary Sue (and I will personally 1v1 you if you dare claim such). She embodies one aspect of what uniting oneself to God’s will consists of: being at peace with Him in times of prosperity, and deflation.

I just love everything about Asuna and Yuuki’s dynamic – it was heartwarming, wholesome and a genuinely phenomenal way to develop character in just six short episodes. Meanwhile, just to get it out of the way, Calibur’s characterization was a massive downgrade especially for Sinon who basically lost all of her defining traits as soon as she was suckered into Kirito’s guild as part of his ever-growing list of side characters. As for the others, might as well ignore them as well since none of them were properly treated beyond their stock traits. Klein is Klein, Lizbeth is Lizbeth, Silica is Silica, and Yui is basically as monotonous as ever. As much as I hate to say it as well, but save for Siune at the end, most of the Sleeping Knights would fit into this category as well.

MUSIC

OST-wise, each arc contains its own dedicated soundtrack style to fit the story. Phantom Bullet Arc’s is more fast-paced, tense, and gives off an ideal vibe for combat-style games. The Calibur arc reverts to the choral/orchestral mix so prominent during the Aincrad era, which for some might be a slice of nostalgia for those who liked that part. Finally, Mother’s Rosario was slow, flexible but entirely introspective, especially given how sentimental it can get. Overall, they properly balance each other out, and both its remix of the popular Swordland theme, Gunland, reserved for the climactic parts of the battles, and Konno Yuuki’s de facto song, You Are Not Alone were some of its musical highlights.

In the case of the vocal music, this half was a major step up to the previous all thanks to two songs by LiSA: Courage and Shiruishi. Just like how Crossing Field captured the excitement of entering a video game world, these two songs solidified the feeling of making lasting bonds through them. I especially love the latter, because of how magical, hopeful and wistful it sounds. It’s a fitting way to leave a mark on one of the most surprisingly wonderful anime sequences I’ve ever seen – if not one of my favourite anime ending songs. In fact, out of all the SAO opening/ending pairs out there, this one beats them all and in all due fairness, this is one of those tracks that perfectly captured the atmosphere of a story as closely as possible.

Acoustic vibes for a midsummer’s night when you need to think on your life

Perhaps the only downside was the ending of the second arc, No More Time Machine – another LiSA track. Yeah, I didn’t like it; the instrumentation was average, I didn’t think the delivery was too powerful, and moreover it sounded way too cheerful for an ending theme when it could have served as an opening theme, instead of having Courage go all the way. I guess it goes hand-in-hand with what they say about judging a story’s quality based on its start/end songs…

FAVOURITES

Favourite character: There’s no contest: Konno Yuuki, as of right now, remains among my top 5 female anime characters whose attitude, Catholic upbringing and strong development relative to the plot won me over tremendously. Consider the fact that I’ve devoted two articles to her character prior to this review and that speaks volumes to how significant she was in my vision. In addition, she was, alongside Bl. Bartolo Longo, St. Dominic and St. Louis De Montfort, a factor that led me to better appreciate my devotion to the Rosary, which I pray before every Mass on Sunday and certain weekdays, and (something I would encourage my fellow Rosary practitioners) enhanced with additional indulgenced prayers, before/during/after each of the mysteries!

Favourite battle: Yuuki against Kirito in the first part of episode 24 sees her narrowly win against our local overpowered swordsman – thereby ending his reign of pwnage. The last move she composes on him is her Mother’s Rosario, significantly dealing him damage – and although it looks like he’s going to land another blow on her, as if an act of divine intervention occurs, the clock runs out to save her from further infliction, and she wins by a longshot. Kind of like how the Rosary works – a powerful armor against vice, sin, and a saving grace from the punishments of Hell for those who have piously recited it in life.

Footage of Kirito fighting Yuuki from episode 24; the last time we see the latter in action.

Favourite scene: Asuna and Yuuki have a discussion of sorts in episode 23 regarding the latter’s early life, her mother’s love, and here we see how strong of a character she is mentally, despite having a terminal illness and being unable to be like her other peers, becoming the object of scorn. It’s an emotional scene to watch and sympathize with, one that helps Asuna get out of her own funk and resolve to defend everything that she holds dearest to her.

Favourite quote: During the above scene, we see a flashback of Yuuki, her mother and sister praying in church. The words of Yuuki’s mother, which she recalls fervently in that time, sounds much like something like what St. John of the Cross, St. Alphonsus Liguori, or St. Bernadette Soubirous would say. Not only is this text beautiful to meditate upon, but also perfectly sums up the core lesson of Mother’s Rosario essentially.

In my youth, my family and I would pray often. After each session, my mom would always remind us: “God would never put us through this suffering, if he didn’t think we could bear it.” At the time, I was never satisfied to hear that. I wanted to hear something that came from her and not the Scriptures; but after seeing the house again, I finally understand what my mom wanted for me: to encourage me, by her prayers and her feelings, to keep moving forward until the end.

Konno Yuuki, episode 23

CONCLUSION

Overall, SAO II was a wholesale improvement over its predecessor, even if by a bit. The stories were better organized, contained less plot skips, higher-dimensional characters and a dosage of heavier material making for a more serious, realistic tale as opposed to purely fantastical. It’s a testament to that anime doesn’t have to be purely for escapism, but perhaps to get us to think and reconsider what we hold dearest, and inspire our lives. Mother’s Rosario captured this mode excellently, distinguishing itself from its previous two sub-stories to become one of my best-loved episodic portions in any anime. Honestly, I’d even go as far as saying if you want to engage this series, to only focus on this section (episodes 18-24) if you want it to leave behind a good impression on you. As to the others: Calibur was a cheap attempt to reignite the feel of the franchise’s first-time appearance, while Phantom Bullet was a suspenseful, dark and edgy tale that comes nowhere near the glory that is Konno Yuuki and Asuna Yuuki’s adventures. And that I have SAO II to at least be grateful for.

SCORE – CALIBUR ARC: 3.4/10
SCORE – MOTHER’S ROSARIO ARC: 9.5/10
OVERALL SCORE: 6.5/10

“Pray the Rosary everyday to obtain peace for the world.”
– Our Lady of Fatima to Jacinta + Francisco Marto and Lucia dos Santos

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